Music for music’s sake, or something else…?


Ed Balls on drumsWhat is music for? In a recent Q&A for the upcoming NAME conference, Dick Hallam, National Music Participation Director, was asked why he believed  music education is important for all children. He answered by pointing to ‘its power to transform lives’. Equally, the phrase ‘The Power of Music’ has become a main staple of music education speak in recent years. Now, no one would deny that music is a special kind of human activity, capable of grabbing our attention and emotions and even allowing us fresh perspectives on our lives.

And yet…I find myself a bit irked with this power/ transformation speak; it’s as if the function of music for young people has become that of a vessel for promoting social cohesion, economic well-being, personal revelation. What happened to music for its own sake, without the baggage?

There are echos here of the debate that occurred around the arts when New Labour came into power, roughly, were the arts to be used for social change, or be promoted for it’s own sake and enjoyment? To some extent, the increased funding for music education in recent years has been sold on the back of claims for the ‘knock-on effects’ eg increased performance in other subjects by students who take music, improved future economic prospects for those from low income families.

However, a focus on music as a transformative ‘balm’ for the self, and for wider society, has the potential effect of diverting attention away from currently overlooked and under developed aspects of music education. An example, based on my work: many students with SEN/ disabilities currently have sketchy access to quality, ongoing music provision in their schools. It’s common for onlookers to describe this group’s musical experiences and achievements only in terms of their theraputic qualities – rather than in the context of a normal ‘bog-standard’ music education with all the usual ups and downs. For such students, music can and should be pursued and enjoyed without hanging tags on it. We should focus on developing their access to workaday music provision and accreditation, instead of automatically looking for the transformative, dramatic effects from often short-term projects.

Because pursuing music as an interest or subject is actually often more straightfoward; it’s a series of ongoing, repetitive rehearsals; time spent composing songs with plenty of dead ends; performances that went well but could have gone better…and then, occasionally, magic moments to make all the graft worthwhile. What is music for? It’s about the love of it and, yes, it can contribute to young people transforming their everyday situation. But please can we re-balance things towards the former?

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